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Redesign the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program to Broaden Participation in STEM Careers

By Jessica A. Castillo Vardaro, Matthew R. Cover, and Katherine A. Wilkinson

The overall budget for the National Science Foundation has not grown significantly for almost 20 years, but with the Senate passing The Endless Frontier Act recently, momentum is building in the White House and Congress toward dramatically increasing financial investment in the institution that is the second largest source for funding science in America. The Senate bill, a similar bipartisan bill in the House, and President Biden’s recent budget request and infrastructure plan all propose major funding increases for the NSF. The NSF funds research across all fields of science, engineering and mathematics, and plays a critical role in accelerating innovation and overcoming challenges facing our nation, including climate change.

NSF is also tasked with supporting the education and training of the next generation of scientists, and broadening participation in STEM for under-served and marginalized communities, a goal we are far from reaching. As lawmakers in D.C. debate the merits of increased funding for NSF, now is the time to critically examine NSF’s current education and diversity initiatives to ensure that increased investments will equitably expand the ranks of STEM professionals.

In particular, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), the largest federal scholarship program for graduate students in STEM, must be re-conceptualized so that it no longer privileges students at elite universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford. We call on the NSF to redesign the GRFP to actively target the tremendous talent at under-resourced colleges that enroll large numbers of underserved students, especially Minority-Serving Institutions.

As faculty members in the California State University System, we have seen first-hand the brilliance and potential of our students, and also recognize that they deserve greater support from the NSF, and more specifically from the GRFP. Of the 23 campuses that comprise the CSU system, 21 are Hispanic-Serving Institutions. The CSU is responsible for educating almost 500,000 students, including more Latinx college graduates than any other university system in the country. Our student body reflects the diversity of California; nearly half of CSU students are Latinx and one-third are the first in their family to attend college. While the University of California system has been designated as the research-focused public university system of California, the CSU system is known as “the People’s University,” and emphasizes broad access to undergraduate education. Despite our high teaching loads and limited resources, many CSU faculty are devoted to supporting research opportunities for our students: in just our three research labs, we have mentored more than 140 students, 14 of whom have continued on to PhD programs.

However, CSU students remain severely underrepresented in the ranks of NSF GRFP winners, and graduate programs in general. NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are one of the most prestigious awards for STEM students, providing substantial stipends of over $30,000 per year and additional flexibility in choosing graduate labs or programs. Of the 2,000 GRFP awards handed out by the NSF each year, roughly half go to undergraduates in their final year, and half go to first and second-year graduate students. Analyses of award winners by Dr. Natalie Tellis, a researcher at Calico Life Sciences, and others have shown that most Graduate Research Fellowships go to students attending a handful of elite universities. For example, in 2017 86 percent of the awards went to students at Research-Intensive Universities, while less than 2 percent went to students at non-Research-Intensive Hispanic-Serving Institutions, only 0.3 percent to students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and none to students at Tribal Colleges and Universities.

On a per capita basis, the disparities are even more overwhelming: just comparing GRFP awards to undergraduates in 2021, almost 1 percent (34 out of 4,361) of MIT’s undergraduates won Graduate Research Fellowships, compared to 0.002 percent (8 out of 432,264) of CSU undergraduates.

What causes this disparity?

Let’s consider a tale of two institutions:

Highly-resourced research universities support academic structures that emphasize research experiences and preparation for graduate school, and their students are more likely to have social and financial support for summer research experiences, travel, and unpaid internships. Reviewers, too, tend to place value on the prestige of institutions and their well-published faculty. Consider also the financial incentive for highly-resourced institutions to support applications from their PhD students: In 2021, the 59 Graduate Research Fellowships to graduate students at Stanford University, for example, represent an $8 million subsidy from NSF to Stanford over the life of the three-year awards, assuming awardees would otherwise be fully funded by the university. Consequently, highly-resourced institutions build an infrastructure, including full-time staff, workshops, and courses that push students to apply for Graduate Research Fellowships and guide them throughout the process.

Less-resourced institutions, on the other hand, typically offer fewer research opportunities with less financial support, lack well-funded graduate programs, and enroll more students who are first-generation in college and have greater constraints for involvement in research, such as the need to work or care for family on top of attending school. Entire academic programs and whole departments at these institutions have budgets less than $8 million. Support for students who aim to go to graduate school and apply for Graduate Research Fellowships often falls upon individual faculty mentors with high teaching and service loads. Reviewers who use traditional metrics of success may be biased against less-prestigious institutions and may not appreciate the barriers or lack of opportunity faced by these students.

To truly broaden participation in STEM, we need to better support the talented scientists at non-elite universities, especially Minority-Serving Institutions. The current Graduate Research Fellowship Program is designed to favor students from well-resourced institutions, who are more likely to be white, from middle class households and already on a path to graduate school.

Instead, we propose that the NSF dedicate a portion of the GRFP funding to awards for students at Minority-Serving Institutions, with a goal of supporting students who have not had the same opportunities as their privileged counterparts. A lack of research experience, publications, high grade point averages, and other traditional metrics of success are often just indicative of personal circumstances and systemic obstacles and not a true reflection of research potential.

Simultaneously, NSF should build institutional capacity at Minority-Serving Institutions and other under-resourced institutions through mini-grants for programs and staff to support students in applying for Graduate Research Fellowships and preparing for graduate school. Additional changes to the Graduate Research Fellowship Program that deserve consideration include eliminating eligibility restrictions for students who have completed master’s degrees, and changing the timing of the application cycle so that undergraduate awardees can better use their award to support their applications to top graduate programs.

The political will on Capitol Hill to reinvest in the NSF has not been this strong in decades. We should take advantage of this moment to push NSF to redesign its Graduate Research Fellowships so that the program ceases to be yet another vehicle to concentrate resources at a handful of well-heeled institutions. By targeting support to the lower-resourced institutions, especially to the Minority-Serving Institutions dedicated to educating the vast majority of traditionally underserved students, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program can transform the scientific workforce and help NSF achieve its mandate to equitably broaden participation in STEM.

Jessica A. Castillo Vardaro is an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at San José State University and a former NSF GRFP winner.

Matthew R. Cover is a Professor of Biological Sciences at California State University Stanislaus

Katherine A. Wilkinson is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.